Whether to invest in social media is no longer a question. Using social media to proactively communicate and inform customers is now high on most marketers' agendas. The challenge, though, for many CMOs becomes how to move their organizations from simply getting "likes" on Facebook to establishing a culture receptive to actively leveraging insight from all social media sites with the goal of improving sales and driving customer loyalty.

CMOs who underestimate the impact of more deeply engaging in social media are missing opportunities to grow revenue, expand brand value, and strengthen customer loyalty. Conversely, marketers who establish a culture focused on deriving customer knowledge from social media will be far better prepared to anticipate future shifts in product development and media consumption—and those who currently do so are well ahead of the curve.

Last October an IBM survey of more than 1,700 global CMOs revealed deficiencies in leveraging social media for marketing. Although top marketing executives recognize a critical and permanent shift occurring in the way they engage with their customers, most marketers said that many of their marketing approaches remain steeped in traditional tactics. In fact, 80 percent or more of the CMOs surveyed said they focus primarily on traditional sources of information like market research, with only 26 percent of CMOs tracking blogs, 42 percent monitoring third-party reviews, and 48 percent reading consumer reviews to help shape their marketing strategies.

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Since the study's publication in October, many analysts and marketing vendors report seeing a shift in CMOs' acceptance of using social. Shawn Myers, director of product marketing at Responsys, says that finding profitable ways to engage through social has become a big part of the CMO's value proposition. "For the CMO [social media] is high on the radar and they're starting to ask, 'How in my world can I gain leverage out of social?'" he notes.

According to Myers, part of the challenge stems from an inability to promote the benefits of cross-channel social orchestration to organizations that are siloed. Myers adds that this requires the marketing organizations to evolve into an entity that manages consumer interactions holistically. "It's a different way of thinking," he says.

Alicia Laszewski agrees. As vice president of corporate marketing and communications at C3 Connect she says that in order for CMOs to encourage employees to respond to tweets and posts within the time frame that's expected on social sites, marketers need to get stronger on their priorities. "If you're not tweeting back, you're missing the boat," she says.

Laszewski says that some brands do a great job of leveraging social, but others are still slow out of the gate. To accelerate greater organization-wide adoption, she suggests fusing a partnership between the CMO and the head of customer service when establishing social strategies. What's happening now, she explains, is that many brands focus on the monitoring aspect of social, but don't weave in the aspects of proactively responding. "That whole response needs to go full circle," she says. "It's about taking that voice of the customer and broadening out across channels."

And Mark Battaglia, CEO of ThinkVine, admits that social media technology vendors inhibit marketers when they drive the discussions around social media based on their interests rather than on trying to solve the CMOs' problems or address their specific needs. "That's why you see a high level of unpreparedness from the CMO," Battaglia says.

esurance authenticates its social strategy

These issues are causing many CMOs to lack direction in their social media journey, but John Sweigert isn't among them. As the CMO of esurance, he's aimed to humanize the company's brand through a social approach that includes transparent customer feedback.

To stand out in the cluttered $100 billion television auto insurance advertising market, esurance decided a year ago that it needed to create a new voice for the company. Sweigert, who believes that "likes" don't equal bottom-line profits, aims to leverage the company's social efforts to drive long-term results by improving customer lifetime value and profitability. His ultimate goal is to increase the number of customers who bundle auto insurance with home and other insurance policies. "It's cool that we have 38,000 'likes,' but can you attribute revenue to it? It's about engaging consumers in the conversation," he says.

To achieve that, he gave customers a voice on Facebook and then listened. Back when many sites blocked controversial posts from their brands' Facebook walls, esurance kept most posts, as long as they didn't contain questionable language and content—and still takes that approach. "It's about engaging people in conversation" he says. "That gives us authenticity."

His team actively spurs conversation by posting questions like, "What complicated insurance terms confuse you?" or "How old were you when you got your driver's license?" They even post sneak peeks of upcoming television commercials.

In addition to his team being actively engaged, Sweigert himself reads the company's Facebook page frequently. "It gives the other executives and me a telescopic view into customer interactions," he explains.

In fact, the executive team was supportive of Sweigert's approach from the beginning because he explained to them that, at the highest level, esurance would be converting the brand message to something that is more authentic to consumers—a strategy that should ultimately gain higher-value customers and boost sales.

And he was right. Sweigert says that esurance is seeing better response to advertising, an increase in shoppers, and a rise in conversion rates. "The conversation is happening in social already," he says. "If you define boundaries around the conversation it will be a disaster. You need to be a participant."